Column: A promising new generation takes the court for U.S. tennis
Progress must be measured in small steps when it comes to the return to prominence of American male tennis players and of American female players not named Venus or Serena Williams.
Frances Tiafoe’s gallant five-set loss to Roger Federer on Tuesday thrilled the sellout crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium and brought tears to the eyes of Kathy Rinaldi, a former player who is part of the U.S. Tennis Assn.’s development programs. Taylor Fritz’s first-ever Grand Slam match victory — a straight-set dismissal of Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus on Wednesday — occurred on Court 10, out of the spotlight, but it was a significant achievement for the Palos Verdes resident and for the USTA officials who project him to be part of the next generation of champions.
“I’ve had to wait a really, really long time for it,” said Fritz, who last year won the first two sets against countryman Jack Sock here but lost in five sets. “I just approached it with nothing to lose, not put too much pressure on myself, play my game.”
No American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open triumph. The last American woman to win a Grand Slam singles title other than the Williams sisters was Jennifer Capriati at the Australian Open in 2002. But with talent coursing through the pipeline and inching toward the top of the rankings, Rinaldi cried for joy.
“To see a lot of these young women and men step onto that stadium and really put their best foot forward, and to see them blossoming not only as tennis players but as tremendous human beings, it’s the most rewarding aspect of this job,” she said.
Fritz was joined in the second round by Bjorn Fratangelo and Donald Young, who earned four-set wins. No. 17 seed Sam Querrey of Santa Monica, a Wimbledon semifinalist this year, and No. 10 John Isner advanced to the third round but former USC standout Steve Johnson lost his second-round match to Kyle Edmund of Great Britain in straight sets. Americans Ryan Harrison, Patrick Kypson, and Tim Smyczek also were eliminated. Sock had lost in the first round.
Jared Donaldson of Irvine, 20, came back from two sets down to force a fifth set in his second-round match against No. 16 Lucas Pouille but couldn’t make a final push. Donaldson, though disappointed, was happy for Fritz. “He can beat anybody,” Donaldson said.
Fritz, 19, hasn’t yet become a consistent threat. But marrying and becoming a young father seem to have forced him to grow up fast, propelling him along the career path that was predicted for him.
“I think the future of men’s tennis is in a great place and there is a lot of excitement ahead,” Brian Boland, head of men’s tennis for USTA player development, said Wednesday. “It’s going to take more time but I think the foundation has been laid.”
Among the women, unseeded Sloane Stephens extended her recent surge by upsetting No. 11 Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, in a second-round match. No. 9 seed Venus Williams got sharper over the course of her 7-5, 6-4 victory over 17-year-old Oceane Dodin of France, and No. 20 CoCo Vandeweghe went the distance to defeat compatriot Alison Riske. Sofia Kenin won another battle between Americans when she defeated Sachia Vickery in three sets, and Nicole Gibbs, Jennifer Brady, Shelby Rogers and Christina McHale also advanced. No. 15 Madison Keys had opened with a win on Tuesday.
“It shows the depth of American women’s tennis, that we are progressing through the ranks and we’re getting more and more inside 100, inside 50 and hopefully more inside 30 and so on,” Vandeweghe said.
Americans CiCi Bellis, Madison Brengel, Taylor Townsend, 2016 U.S. Open junior champion Kayla Day of Santa Barbara, and wild card Ashley Kratzer of Newport Beach lost on a busy day at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, but the process of nurturing young talent is progressing toward its goal of producing players who can pick up the Grand Slam torch when it’s handed over by 35-year-old Serena Williams — who’s missing the Open while pregnant — and 37-year-old Venus Williams. Progress often comes in small increments but it’s coming, at last.
“I think we are in the best place that we have been in 15 years,” Martin Blackman, general manager of USTA player development, said of the U.S. women. “You know, we have had the luxury of having Serena and Venus lead the way for so long, but now we’ve got players like Madison and CoCo, and Sloane is healthy, and then so many other young players that are coming up and playing well. So I think we are really poised to have two or three more women that are going to be in the second week of Grand Slams and could potentially get to the last weekend.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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